by Sarah Landenwich
Planning a wedding can at times seem the equivalent of pawning our mothers’ burnt bras to finance a boob job. Or trading in a Donna Karan power suit for a Donna Reed apron. The inner feminist who rages at glass ceilings and the indignities of pantyhose in July (and knows, by the way, that no feminist brassiere was ever actually lit afire) turns suddenly demure in the face of handmade glass earrings and twenty pounds of white taffeta in August. Currently planning a wedding myself, I have been surprised at my own susceptibility to the bride-as-princess vision that is the ageless dream of five-year-olds across America. Surprised also at the flash of regret when I removed the lace-encrusted wedding gown, complete with three-foot train, and said weakly, “I said I wouldn’t wear white at my wedding.” And even more at the alacrity with which I accepted the salesclerk’s card when she suggested the dress could be ordered in ivory.
The decision not to wear white at my wedding, along with the decision to reject the traditional ceremony, was made in the instant I began to think about my nuptials—not agonized over or set upon after researching web sites boasting ideas for “alternative” weddings (the existence of such events being questionable anyhow, since even a can of Campbell’s soup as a table favor is still a table favor). No, these decisions were automatic, definitive, obvious: I would not wear white to my wedding just as I would not wear a leopard-print leotard to work. Nor would I wear a veil, be given away, take my husband’s last name, or allow scripture celebrating Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib anywhere near my ceremony.
Yet having these convictions in the face of the beast that is the modern wedding is not simple. Becoming the bride-to-be has a strange power—blame it on a Disney hex of sorts, or perhaps a bridal spirit that is the collective, inexorable push of female ancestors whose weddings were likely the only indulgence of their lives. Whatever it is, I have discovered that the only thing more difficult than balancing ideas of feminism—or even individuality—with wedding planning is talking to other women about my rationale for shirking tradition without making them feel bad about their own ivory taffeta.
Typically one to ride the girltalk bandwagon until the last Beaujolais is emptied, I have found myself suddenly self-censoring to the point where the only person to whom I speak freely about my wedding plans is my fiancé, to whom quibbles over white dresses and the absurdity of garter belts are met with mild and exasperatingly pragmatic agreement. He, after all, has not been entrenched in traditions that herald the wedding day as the most important of a woman’s life: her chance to play Barbie on a life-size scale.
So, to all of you—my friends and acquaintances and now readers who have been insulted by my disparagement of your special day: Let me explain.
My argument with the traditional wedding arose in graduate school. Not in a sociology course or a class on feminist theory, but while preparing for the dreaded foreign language translation exam that every master’s candidate in the humanities must pass. For months, I pored over inexplicable Xeroxes of French history and literary criticism. There is no textual intimacy like translation, I learned as I inspected each stray ink blot to determine if it was in fact an accent aigu. The remnants of two (poorly) translated practice exams are still scrawled in my old notebook: one on the merits of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the other an essay about marriage. The title of the marriage essay escapes me, but an accurate translation could have been “Why Marriage Was Better When Women Were Property.” As I also neglected to note the author’s name, the true identity of this dear man will remain forever unknown, but it is probable that “Why Marriage Was Better” was written by Likely Fat and Ugly Frenchman, Sr.
I imagine Monsieur Frenchman as the worst type of unrequited lover—a kind of antipode of Petrarch. I see him hunched over his desk with a snifter of cheap cognac, petting his patchy goatee and fuming over the repudiation he has suffered at the hands of the fortunate Frenchwoman who realized he would have been a wretched husband. Only the most incorrigible of spurned lovers could argue for the merits of marriage as a loveless material arrangement with such venomous glee.
The beginning of this lovely essay was a lesson not only in translating intolerably stuffy French prose, but also a primer in the history of marriage traditions and their representation. In fastidious detail, monsieur describes the marriage preparations and ceremony undertaken by an ancient Roman bride. Most of these, with the exception of combing the hair “with a sharp spearhead in the form of a needle as a sign of consecration to Juno” found their way into the contemporary (if we can call it that) wedding ceremony. The typical Roman bride was given an engagement ring, wore a white dress and a veil, was carried across the threshold of her husband’s home, and shared cake with her husband at their marriage celebration. Sound familiar?
There is a large gap in my translation, which likely means that the interior sections were obscured by a train of eight-syllable words and too much passé composé, but I picked up again when Fat and Ugly Frenchman relocated his discussion of marriage in more recent history and launched into a treatise on why marriage was better when it was for practical agreement rather than love. These good old days of marriage-as-female-servitude ended when the rowdy post-World War I (yes—I, not II) generation decided to marry for love rather than pragmatism or family mandate. An excerpt from our dear monsieur describing the horror of the state of this “current” matrimony follows:
He will work ten, twelve hours a day. But she will complain because she has more work at home, and because “it is more difficult.” If he has a brain, he will think that if his wife knew how to organize her housework, she would have even more spare time than she had. But since he is kind, he will say nothing. He will prepare his coffee himself before going to work.
I won’t vouch for the most elegant translation, but you understand his general point.
I will never know how the beginning and ends of M. Frenchman’s essay actually fit together; in place of his connections between past and present there is just a huge blank in my notebook. However, his structural progression is as clear as his abhorrence of modernity and women: Monsieur began in ancient Rome with an exaltation of tradition and wound up in the early 20th century with the ways in which tradition have been flouted and undermined (to the detriment of men, of course.)
But in fact, monsieur was wrong. Though on the surface it may have seemed that the good old days were crumbling before him, he lived—and we live—in a world so entrenched in tradition and the past that we can barely see them—their pervasiveness has rendered them almost invisible. We know the various scripts of tradition as if by birthright, and we play our roles to perfection. When it comes to the marriage ceremony, we all know what to wear, when to clap, when to say that the bride and the groom make a smashing couple, and when it’s appropriate to take our leave. We are so aware of the script and everyone’s part in it that we are often befuddled when one of the actors flubs his or her part.
For instance, the admission that I’m not wearing white to my wedding is met with either accolades for being “different” or confusion at why I would ever consider such an idea. There is something odd about both. First, that in a culture that has become so diverse and, in many ways, resistant to the status quo, people think it is really that “different” to wear color on one’s wedding day. And second, that the repudiation of said tradition is so preposterous to others in the exact same culture and of remarkably similar persuasions.
Among the latter was Francesca, the super-chic woman who manages the scandalously overpriced bridal boutique where I searched for my wedding outfit. When I told her I was getting married but was not looking for a white dress, a bemused look scudded across her powdered face like a cloud. It was smoothed over with a forced brightness as she marched me into a dressing room and began tossing gown after colorful gown across the top of the dressing-room door. In the midst of figuring out that the floor-length taffeta number I was trying to tug up my hips had hidden zippers, Francesca knocked discreetly at the door and ducked inside, not bothering to wait for an invitation to come in. Totally oblivious to any desire for modesty on my part and deftly ignoring the fact that I was stuck in one of her expensive gowns, Francesca leaned forward knowingly and whispered, with what she must have assumed was discretion, “If it’s the money, we have some very reasonably priced bridal gowns.”
Half-naked and ankle-deep in a flounce of brightly-colored satins and silks, I didn’t feel like explaining that though I was indeed ethically opposed to paying $5,000 for any gown, it was not the price tag of a designer dress that had me shivering among the detritus of rejected dresses. “It’s not the money,” I simply said, not willing to step onto my soapbox at the bridal boutique. “I just don’t want to wear white.”
In the nine months of my engagement, I have developed three stock responses for reactions similar to that from Francesca: (1) an abrupt “I don’t like what white stands for” followed by a swift change of subject; or, if I feel that this is overly pedantic, the cop-out: (2) “I don’t look good in white.” If I’m looking to end the discussion with no further questions, I resort to the response I gave to her: (3) “I just don’t want to.”
But the actual answer—totally inappropriate for a barely-clothed conversation at the bridal store—is this: I spent enough time looking up each of dear Fat and Ugly Frenchman’s words that I had to dwell with them, word by tedious French word. And what I came to was a realization that every wedding I had attended had been a mishmash of ritual and custom that had been mimed and replicated with devoted and perhaps even admirable solemnity, but not real deliberation. That most weddings were a going-through-the-motions of customs and practices that had come before, which were inevitably mimicking another what-had-come-before from a more distant before.
Of course I knew then just as we all know deep down in the gray matter that most of the marriage ceremony has its roots in cultural and religious beliefs prescribed by societies distant to us now. Modern wedding-goers know, for instance, that the white gown represents the purity of the bride (though this representation was only popularized in the 20th century) and that the father walking the bride down the aisle is an old vestige of the days of arranged marriages, when the father would pass the goods (that’s us, gals) from one man to another. But to know this in the back of our minds theoretically and philosophically and then to simply ignore it as the bride walks demurely down the aisle is the equivalent of roasting a Christmas boar at a vegetarian Christmas brunch. The problem with the customs and rituals surrounding the celebration of marriage is not that there is an inherent flaw in observing tradition, but that the traditions of the marriage celebration represent practices that at one time or another have made women their casualties. By incorporating them into our ceremonies, we are, in essence, paying homage to the very conventions that marginalized us for centuries. Despite what we may think or want to think, tradition and ritual can’t be divested of their meaning—it’s always there somewhere, the residue of the past making an oily stain on someone’s white chiffon.
The white dress is hard to resist: As any woman who has been into a bridal store can tell you, there is something amazingly seductive about wearing a dress that costs more than your rent and watching yourself transform into the vision you saw as a little girl: the icon of beauty, attention, and femininity we have all seen hundreds of times. It holds a powerful allure—the feeling that we are fulfilling the same ritual that our mothers and grandmothers and friends and sisters have performed before us. But—while I don’t think it is exceptionally “different” to wear a colorful dress to one’s wedding (women did it for centuries between the Romans and the Victorians, after all)—there is something richly defiant in relegating the white dress to the past. In not replicating or embodying or signifying—to the extent that is possible—and in so doing carving out a space for new meaning, or no meaning at all.
Fat and Ugly Frenchman convinced me that, as I was one of those renegade post-World War I kids who would marry for love, I would have a ceremony that was wholly about me and my husband-to-be and not merely a rote replication of rituals that have been invested and divested and ascribed with meaning again and again and again. And that the past wouldn’t be the guest no one wanted to invite who got drunk and puked on the cake. There are uncles for that. I decided that I would celebrate my marriage without the vestiges of tradition—no white, no veil, no giving away, and no spear-combed hair. And with beauty (in navy blue satin, as it turns out) on the side.
Sarah Landenwich is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. She currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as a freelance editor and adjunct composition instructor. She holds an MA in English from the University of Louisville.